Addison Heimann’s feature directorial debut is a compassionate and sensitive exploration of mental illness.
Going into Hypochondriac, it might seem as if Addison Heimann is simply creating another riff on The Babadook (2014). Since the Australian psychological horror’s huge success, using a monster in a horror film as a metaphor for trauma is hard to do without the film being perceived as simply following a trend. Luckily, Hypochondriac is distinctive enough in its goals and direction that it is clearly made from a place of originality and personal investment, and Heimann is definitely more than just a bandwagon jumper.
The film’s premise is straightforward enough. As a child, protagonist Will (Ian Inigo) has a traumatic experience where his mother (Marlene Forte) tries to kill him. Shortly after, she is diagnosed with an unspecified mental illness that causes substantial delusions and a form of Capgras Syndrome where she believes many of her loved ones have been replaced by imposters. She is then institutionalized, and Will makes the choice to cut her out of his life.
Years later, an adult Will (now played by Zach Villa) begins experiencing hallucinations and fears that he has inherited his mother’s illness. The film explores how his life and relationships are affected by these hallucinations, and how he deals with the possibility that he may end up in a similar position to his mother. The film follows his developing relationships with his parents, his partner Luke (Devon Graye), and a series of healthcare professionals of varying competence levels (including performances by beloved performers Debra Wilson and Paget Brewster).
One of the most remarkable features of Hypochondriac is the way it avoids some of the most common problems with exploitative or harmful representations of mental illness. It is often hard for storytellers to examine mental illness, and portrayals often fall into one of several clichés. A film may go hard into the sadness and pain of the experience without any room for hope, or in contrast, it may create an annoyingly inspirational story that glosses over the pain to refigure it for good feelings. Films that try too hard to focus on hope can sometimes trivialize or undermine the amount of suffering that people with mental illness can experience, but films that try too hard to focus on the pain can often forget that even people with the most severe trauma still have moments of joy. It’s a hard balance to strike, and one that Heimann manages better than many others.
Hypochondriac distinctively signals that it intends to balance trauma with recovery from the beginning with the contrast between its first two scenes. In the opening scene, a mother tries to kill her son; in the second scene, we see that son as a grown man dancing happily to Jessie J. and enjoying a moment of pure joy. We also see him helping his coworker work through a panic attack in a scene balancing fear with compassion and genuine human connection.
Throughout, the film never sugarcoats or downplays how difficult mental illness is for the protagonist to experience. The trauma, struggle, loneliness, and terror are all very real, visceral, and undiluted. However, the character’s life is always more than just these experiences, and he is never dehumanized or denied possibilities for hope, compassion, connection, and promise. The film’s balance is well-struck, and it is clear that Heimann has put a lot of work into a nuanced and caring portrayal.
Also very well-done is the depiction of how much social structures harm people who live with mental illness. While Will’s hallucinations cause him to struggle, the film emphasizes that a lot of his problems come from the way that other people respond to his hallucinations. He is ignored by a father who refuses to acknowledge what is happening, failed by a series of incompetent or uncaring healthcare professionals, and refused any sort of accommodation or support from his terrible employer. He deals with constant terror that he is going to end up lonely and abandoned like his mother. The abandonment and mistreatment by others is a major part of Will’s struggle; the film is, in many ways, a plea to viewers to listen more sincerely to people with mental illness and to take their experiences, lives, and needs more seriously.
Will’s character is complex and haunted, and Villa does a phenomenal job portraying him in all of his depth. On the one hand, Will’s fear that his family and friends will abandon him seems somewhat karmic considering that he abandoned his mother because of her illness. After contributing to his mother’s isolation, Will has to confront what this abandonment can do to someone who is already struggling with mental illness. On the other hand, the amount of trauma faced by someone who, as a child, was almost killed by his mother, makes it hard to blame him for this decision, as harmful as it may be to her.
There are no easy moral judgements, and it is hard to say whether or not Will is justified in his actions towards his mother. On the one hand, he is protecting himself from a site of serious trauma that is not to be underestimated, but on the other hand, he is contributing to the oppression and isolation of a woman struggling with serious mental illness who is not exactly at fault for what happened. The film’s engagement with this sort of moral ambiguity is well done, particularly when it couples it with other moments of moral certainty; Will’s employer, father, and some of the doctors are clearly in the wrong, indicating that there are situations where characters are outright unethical. These moments of moral assuredness complement the more ambiguous situations: too often, films mistake moral ambiguity for an “anything goes” sort of nihilism, so it is nice to see a film with a more dynamic approach that shows how some situations are more ambiguous than others.
The film does have some major flaws. For a film about a man trying to reconcile with his feelings about his mother, Hypochondriac pays surprisingly little attention to his mother herself. She is almost only ever shown through other peoples’ perspectives or recorded footage, and she doesn’t get a chance to be onscreen much in a way that’s not filtered through someone else. While Will develops a lot and learns to experience more compassion and care for his mother, this growth comes in the form of his own personal development and journey; the film could have delved a little bit more into the mother’s character and life outside of how she relates to others. It’s disappointing that the film doesn’t spend more time with Will’s mother or allow her for more interiority, subjectivity, or perspective.
The film is also sometimes a bit muddled with its direction. It has a very strong start, but by the 45-minute mark, it slowly starts to lose a sense of clarity. Obviously, in a surrealist film filled with hallucinations and dream sequences, narrative clarity is not always going to be expected; however, Hypochondriac sometimes struggles with thematic or artistic clarity, which is a bigger issue. Sometimes the film seems a bit too unsure about exactly what it’s trying to say in a given moment, and it’s often unclear what Heimann trying to do with a particular scene. A bit more time thinking through ideas and developing the script with a more consistently clear vision and direction would have helped a lot.
All in all, Hypochondriac is a film built with compassion, care, and the desire to speak for a community that is often sidelined or misrepresented in mainstream media. Heimann’s direction shows a lot of promise, and the film is commendable for its ambition and goals. While a bit unpolished in places, and in need of a bit more development work, Hypochondriac is, on the whole, worth paying attention to.